Glenview, Illinois—October 25, 1996
Her son was awfully quiet. Ensconced on a park bench in the little playground, Maggie divided her time between composing a grocery list and watching her four-year-old, Mark, play on the jungle gym.
BBQ Potato Chips, she scribbled down on the personalized notepad with Ms. Margaret Farris printed along the top of the page with the cheesy illustration of a pumpkin patch. She had gotten the notepad from the March of Dimes or the American Cancer Society or one of those places that sent her junk mail. She always felt a bit guilty for keeping her “personal gift” and tossing out the rest of it. But not too guilty—she gave to the United Way at the office.
Maggie worked part-time, selling ad space for the Pioneer Press, a weekly newsmagazine for several suburbs along the Chicago North Shore. She cherished these Fridays off, spending the day with Mark. After this, they’d go grocery shopping at Dominic’s. They now had a tradition on Friday nights: she and Mark would meet her husband, Ed, at the Glenview train station and they’d go for dinner at The Willow Inn.
Sitting on that park bench, bundled in a pea coat, with her light brown hair fluttering in the breeze, Maggie had no idea this wouldn’t be one of their regular Friday nights. They wouldn’t make it to the supermarket.
She added rice to the shopping list, and then K-Mart Bars. That was what Mark called Special K Bars. Maggie had gotten him to eat the healthy snacks, but still couldn’t get him to call them by their correct name. So—in the Farris household, they were K-Mart Bars. And if somebody ate too many, they might get a stomachache and need to take some Pencil Bismal— another Markism.
Dressed in jeans, red tennis shoes, and his blue Chicago Bears jacket with the orange C logo on the back, he scurried over to the slide. The sun caught him at a certain angle, and made his curly, dark brown hair look golden.
It was a beautiful, cool-crisp fall afternoon. The trees were a riot of color, and fallen leaves danced across the grass. The playground stood in the far corner of a big playfield. Some shrubs near the monkey bars provided a natural barrier to a gully alongside a set of railroad tracks. It smelled like someone nearby was burning leaves.
She watched Mark careen down the slide—without making a sound. He played like some people studied— quietly and focused. While watching TV or eating or even lying in bed, he was a regular chatterbox. He even talked to himself. But not right now. He was concentrating, and the task at hand was making his way down the slide.
Maggie had no complaints. The silence was lovely— no traffic noise, just the occasional chirping from some birds. She went back to her grocery list. Rollos & mini Nestlé Crunch, she wrote. They needed something for the trick-or-treaters, but who was she kidding? She’d be dipping into both bags. Hell, she’d probably have to buy another supply before Halloween. Better she give out some candy that wasn’t so tempting—maybe Mike & Ikes and Hot Tamales. No, she’d only eat those, too. Maggie jotted down a few more candy candidates, then scratched them out and scribbled: Halloween crap— whatever’s on sale.
In the distance, she heard a train horn blaring. She automatically looked up. Mark wasn’t on the slide anymore. She glanced over toward the vacant monkey bars—and then at the swing set. The empty swings swayed in the breeze. The chains holding them squeaked lightly.
“Mark?” she called. Maggie sprung up from the bench. Her notepad and pen fell to the ground. “Mark, honey, where are you?” she yelled. Glancing around the park, she had this awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t see him on the railroad tracks on the other side of the bushes. And he wasn’t in the play- field, either. How could he have just vanished?
She kept hoping to hear his laugh. Maybe he was playing hide-and-seek with her. But all she heard was the train horn, getting louder and louder. She anxiously looked over toward the tracks again. There was still no sign of him.
The street was on the other side of the playfield, and she didn’t see any cars coming or going. No one could have driven off with him. She’d only looked away for a few moments. With a hand on her forehead, she wandered around the small park, calling out his name.
Why in God’s name didn’t he answer her?
With a roar, the train sped by, drowning out her cries. As it churned down the tracks, the noise sub- sided—only to be replaced by the sound of her son’s screams. Panic-stricken, all
Maggie could think was that the train had run over him—and severed his foot or an arm.
Maggie raced toward the tracks and broke through a gap in the shrubs. Peering down at the gully that sloped down from the railroad tracks, she spotted Mark. “Honey?” she whispered.
Her little boy stood at the bottom of the ditch—amid the thorny bushes and overgrown grass. He’d just pulled something out of a black plastic garbage bag. Frozen, he held it in his trembling hand, and kept shrieking. It was a severed human arm.
He couldn’t seem to move or let go of the mangled thing. And he couldn’t stop screaming.
Horrified, Maggie rushed down the gully to him. She had to knock the severed arm out of his grasp. The empty black plastic bag danced in the wind. Maggie hugged her young son, but he kept screaming. His little body shook in her embrace.
Maggie glanced down at the blue-white limb amid the overgrown grass. The fingertips on the hand had been cut off, and hundreds of ants were crawling all over it.
The headline and subhead ran across the top of page three of Saturday’s Chicago Tribune:
ANOTHER GRISLY DISCOVERY IN ‘GARBAGE BAG’ KILLING
Severed Arm Found Near Glenview Playground
Seated on a stool at the window counter of the Plaza del Lago Starbucks in Wilmette, he paid no attention to the traffic on Sheridan Road or the view of the lake. He sipped his Grande Americano and pored over the news article. He was a bit disappointed the story hadn’t made the front page.
No photo accompanied the article, but there was a map of the Chicago North Shore suburbs. It pinpointed each location where a garbage bag containing a body part was found. So far there were three sites on the map, all within a few miles of each other.
The most recent find had been the right arm, which he’d tossed in a ditch by some railroad tracks near a playground in Glenview. He’d sealed the bag up pretty well, but that was no guarantee raccoons or birds wouldn’t get to it.
Fortunately, a four-year-old Glenview boy—the news article didn’t give his name—found it first. The news story indicated that his handiwork was still intact— nothing gnawed away, no bite marks to mar the clean, surgical cuts he’d made just below her shoulder.
He hadn’t been as lucky with the first find. Wood creatures had discovered the left leg hours before a group of schoolkids on a field trip stumbled upon it along a forest trail in Glencoe’s Turnbull Woods on Monday morning. The possums or raccoons had dragged the garbage bag—along with the half-eaten limb—to the path’s edge.
Another animal, a collie named Tippin, had unearthed the left arm wrapped in a garbage bag by some bushes at the edge of Tower Road Beach in Winnetka. Bradley Reece, a retired English teacher, had been taking Tippin on an unleashed run along the beach when the dog had made the discovery late Thursday afternoon.
“Cook County Medical Examiner Dennis Gotlieb has confirmed the severed leg and arms are from the same unidentified female victim,” the article stated. “The fingertips of both hands had been cut off. Gotlieb indicated that the victim appears to have been killed within the past two weeks.”
Nine days ago, to be exact, thought the man, hunched over the counter with his newspaper. He’d strangled her last Thursday. It was supposed to have been a night of reconciliation, or at least she’d thought so. He’d surprised her with a bottle of champagne and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s strawberry. She never got to finish that first glass of champagne.
Three garbage bags containing her remains were still out there at various locations along the North Shore. A cold snap in the weather had helped keep the limbs relatively fresh. They hadn’t yet found the right leg, her lower torso, and the upper torso. But they would—soon enough.
He didn’t think they would ever find her head. He’d buried it very carefully.
According to the news article, one of the detectives on the scene at Tower Road Beach on Thursday had referred to the discovery as part of the Garbage Bag Murder.
The man sitting in Starbucks hoped the moniker caught on. He liked the sound of it.
“If I told you a secret—I mean, a really, majorly serious secret—would you promise not to blab to anybody?”
Seventeen-year-old Candy Kruger couldn’t keep it inside any longer. She had to talk to someone. She nervously ran a hand through her light brown hair—styled after Rachel in Friends. The sophisticated cut seemed incongruous with her St. Regina High School uniform: white Peter Pan–collar blouse, plaid kilt, and knee socks.
Her best friend, Trish Scanlin, gazed at her from behind a pair of slightly mannish glasses. She had frizzy red hair, which today was pulled back and braided. She blinked several times. “God, what is it?” she whispered.
“Candice and Patricia!” their biology teacher, Ms. Trotter, admonished them. Maybe it was the photo of President Clinton—right under the photo of Pope John Paul II—by the blackboard, but Ms. Trotter always reminded Candy of Hillary Clinton. Though a redhead, she did her hair like the first lady—and she had that same brainiac, no-nonsense demeanor. “Eyes on your work, and put your gloves on, please,” Ms. Trotter said.
Candy automatically straightened up on her stool. With a sigh, she slipped on the pair of latex gloves that had been placed on the worktable in front of her. She rolled her eyes at Trish, and then gazed down at the wrinkly pink-grayish dead thing in a pan with a plastic bag rolled up beside it. Candy’s lip curled. Part of the umbilical cord was still attached to the fetal pig they had to dissect for class. She and Trish had been working with the unborn piglet for three days now, and Candy still wasn’t used to it. Trish did most of the cutting. They’d named the poor thing Boris, after their drippy trig teacher who stunk from wearing too much bargain-basement cologne. Their little Boris stunk as well—from formaldehyde or whatever the solution was preserving him.
According to Ms. Trotter, the insides of a pig were similar to a human’s, and that was why this animal was so ideal for dissection. And no fetal pigs were murdered for this biology class—at least, not exactly. They were the unborn piglets of sows butchered by the meat- packing industry. They were extracted from the dead sow’s uterus.
That little bit of information didn’t make Candy feel any better about cutting into the poor thing. And it had her swearing off bacon—at least until the end of the semester.
She kept gazing at Boris and at the plastic bag in which they stored him between classes. She thought about cutting into him, and couldn’t help making a connection to the latest discovery in the Garbage Bag Killing.
The day before, someone had found the woman’s upper torso. It had been inside a black garbage bag at a construction site—a half-finished new mansion in Hubbard Woods, not far from the house they used in Home Alone. Like anyone would want to live in that new mansion now, no matter how pretty it was, even in that ritzy cake-eater neighborhood.
According to the TV news, the torso had some distinct markings.
“So—what’s the big secret?” Trish whispered. Hovering over Boris, she held a suture in her gloved hand. But she was looking at Candy.
Ms. Trotter was busy helping Barbie Ray, who was a total moron, so Candy figured it was okay to talk. “You know how yesterday they found a new section of that woman who got murdered?” she said under her breath. “And you know how my aunt supposedly killed herself?”
Trish scowled at her. “What do you mean, supposedly?”
“I mean, I don’t think she committed suicide,” Candy admitted in a quiet voice. She kept her head down, pretending to be focused on the fetal pig in front of her. “I think she’s the one whose body parts they’re finding all over the place.”
“You’re kidding!” Trish said, out loud.
Candy automatically glanced toward Ms. Trotter, who glared at them. “Patricia, Candice? Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class? And does it have anything to do with the digestive system of our specimens?”
Their mouths open, both Candy and Trish quickly shook their heads. Then they pretended to get back to work on Boris. Candy stared at the internal organs of the unborn thing. She thought of her Aunt Lisa—and the section of torso found at that construction site.
Candy felt sick. She remembered how beautiful her Aunt Lisa was. They weren’t too far apart in age. Lisa was only twenty-five. She had wavy, shoulder-length chestnut hair and big blue eyes with long, thick lashes. Candy had seen her without makeup, and she was still gorgeous. Candy had seen her naked, too. Her aunt had taken her swimming at the country club pool a few times over the summer, and Candy had snuck a curious peek at her in the locker room. She felt clunky and pale in her aunt’s naked presence. Lisa had long, tan, shapely legs, a tiny waist, and petite perfect breasts. She seemed flawless—until Candy glimpsed the purple-hued bruise on Lisa’s lower back. She also had an ugly scar along her left rib cage—a cluster of three angry-reddish marks, each about the size of a nickel.
Lisa seemed to catch her staring, and she quickly wrapped a towel around her. Earlier, while swimming, Candy had wondered why her aunt—with her killer body—would wear a modest one-piece swimsuit to the pool. Now she knew. “God, Aunt Lisa, what happened?” Candy asked. “It looks like you burned yourself, and your back. . . .”
Her Aunt Lisa just shook her head, which Candy took as a cue to shut the hell up. Outside, kids screamed, giggled, and splashed in the pool. But in their little alcove of the locker room, Candy just stared at her Aunt Lisa for a moment.
Lisa let out a nervous laugh. “Oh, I’m such a klutz. I—I had an accident with the barbecue, hon. That’s what I get for messing around in your Uncle Glenn’s territory. I fell—and suddenly there were hot coals and me sprawled out all over the patio....” With a wave of her hand, she seemed to dismiss the subject. “I’m so embarrassed. I don’t even want to talk about it. You know what I think? I think we should head to Old Orchard and go shopping. Fall’s just around the corner, hon, and you’ll need clothes for all the dates you’ll have....”
Clutching the towel around her, Aunt Lisa retreated toward the shower area. Candy frowned as she watched her duck around the corner of the tiled room. She’d known right then that story about the barbecue was probably a lie.
Glenn was Candy’s uncle—her mom’s younger brother and a big-shot surgeon. He and Lisa had been married for a year. Lisa had a brother with cancer or something, and he was always in and out of the hospital. That was how Lisa had met Glenn—during one of her hospital visits to her brother. She didn’t really have any other family. As for girlfriends, the way Lisa explained it she just grew apart from most of her friends when she married Glenn. She became sort of a big sister to Candy—a big sister with money, who took her places and bought her stuff. Plus she was funny and sweet, and a good listener. Candy confided in her. She didn’t think there was anything she couldn’t tell her Aunt Lisa.
And yet on that afternoon in the women’s changing room by the country club pool, she’d realized there were some things Lisa kept secret from her.
Candy wouldn’t put it together about the bruise and the burn marks until after Aunt Lisa disappeared.
She’d been missing for almost three weeks now. They figured she’d drowned herself. The police had discovered Lisa’s teal-colored Honda Civic parked on a remote bridge in Iowa—of all places. She must have driven half a day to get there. Inside the car, they found a quart of bourbon, a bottle of Valium, her purse, and a note that simply read:
To the People Left Who Care About Me—
Though it was obvious the Mississippi had swallowed up Lisa’s body, Candy’s Uncle Glenn reported his wife missing. He seemed to be the only person who refused to believe Lisa had killed herself.
Candy had missed a few days of school in the wake of Aunt Lisa’s suicide. Devastated, she was left wondering why Aunt Lisa had taken her own life—until she overheard her parents talking a week later.
Trying to catch up on the schoolwork she’d missed, Candy often tried different spots in the house to study so she wouldn’t get too bored. That night, it was at the top of the back stairs—just above the kitchen. Her parents didn’t know she was there. Her mother was cooking dinner. Candy could hear ice rattling in glasses and whispered conversation.
“I think Glenn’s feeling so guilty right now, and that’s why he’s in denial,” her mother was saying.
“He’s just sore that Lisa beat him to it,” Candy’s father grunted. “We should have done something, Audrey. What with the way your brother beat that poor girl—and all those secret trips to the hospital to patch her up—I really thought the son of a bitch would end up killing her.”
Sitting at the top of the stairs with a highlighter and a copy of Beowulf, Candy remembered the three nickel-size burn marks on her Aunt Lisa’s rib cage and the ugly bruise on her lower back. Lisa had given that vague explanation about tripping and knocking over the barbecue on the patio. She’d said the barbecue was Uncle Glenn’s territory. But in all the times Candy had been at their house, she’d never seen Uncle Glenn cook a single thing—be it on the barbecue, the range, or the toaster oven. Aunt Lisa had always done the cooking, while Uncle Glenn sat back with his fancy imported beer from Germany and a fat cigar from Cuba. Candy remembered how he’d puff on that cigar, and it would glow at the end—making an orange-ashy circle about the size of a nickel.
Candy suddenly stood up. Her copy of Beowulf fell off her lap and toppled down the stairs. She managed to compose herself and hurried down the steps to retrieve it. Clutching the book to her chest, she passed through the kitchen without looking at her parents. She just kept walking—toward her father’s study in the front of the house. Her mom called to her that dinner would be ready in ten minutes. “Okay!” she answered, curling up on the leather sofa in the paneled study.
She didn’t tell her parents what she’d overheard— and she didn’t tell them about the bruise and burn marks that no one else had seen.
Candy had never suspected her aunt was being abused. Now certain things made sense. There had always been something about her uncle she didn’t like. He was generous, and gave her the best Christmas and birthday presents. But by the time she hit high school, Candy realized he always talked down to her, like she was stupid or something. And he could be so tactless, too. She never forgot the time he started counting the zits on her face—and said maybe she needed a good dermatologist. She went to bed crying that night. But he talked the same way to her mom and Aunt Lisa—always so critical. He acted like his shit didn’t stink— and everyone else’s did.
As much as she didn’t like Glenn, she had adored his new wife.
Sometimes, Lisa had to postpone their gal-pal dates, and she gave only a vague explanation as to why. Then she wouldn’t be available for days. Now Candy wondered if the absences were because Lisa had been recovering from another round with Glenn. Candy remembered pitching a fit on her last birthday, because late that morning, Lisa had called trying to cancel their lunch plans. She’d managed to talk her aunt into keeping their date at Hackney’s. Sitting at a window table, Candy had been so excited about the grown-up girls’ lunch that she hadn’t really noticed Aunt Lisa wasn’t quite herself. She didn’t say much, and when she did, she talked kind of funny, slurring her words. Lisa had ordered soup, and barely ate it. Candy thought her patty melt was to die for, and tried to get Aunt Lisa to take a bite. She practically had to shove it in Lisa’s face to get her to taste it.
Candy noticed her aunt’s eyes watering up as she chewed. She let out a whimper, and finally spit out the food into her napkin. The glob of half-eaten food was full of blood. Candy gasped when she saw it.
Lisa quickly sipped some water. When she put the glass down again, Candy noticed the water had just the slightest pink tinge to it. “The inside of your mouth is bleeding,” Candy whispered.
Lisa nodded. “I had a rough morning at the dentist,” she said in her slurred speech. She started to cry. “I should have told you earlier, but I didn’t want to spoil your birthday lunch. And now I have. I’m so sorry, hon....”
They didn’t stay long after that. Candy had the rest of her sandwich wrapped to go. While Lisa drove her back home in the teal-colored Honda Civic, they were uncharacteristically quiet. The sun streamed through the windshield, and in the harsh light, Candy noticed her aunt was wearing a lot of makeup, mostly foundation. But it didn’t completely conceal the bruise on her chin.
Candy recalled carefully kissing her good-bye on the cheek. Yet she’d never allowed herself to wonder what might have really happened to her. She’d believed Lisa’s story about the dentist—as if any dentist in his right mind would send a patient home with a mouth full of blood.
It all started to make sense the night Candy heard her parents talking in the kitchen. Lisa’s brother had died only two weeks before she jumped off that tall bridge in Iowa. Maybe his death had pushed her over the edge. But certainly giving her an extra nudge was an asshole of a husband who abused her.
Just the same, Candy wondered why Aunt Lisa hadn’t told her how she was suffering. If Candy had known, she would have insisted her parents do something—or she might have called the police herself. She might have been able to help her. Candy missed her Aunt Lisa, and yet she couldn’t help feeling angry and resentful toward her.
Then something happened, and she realized her aunt might not have killed herself after all: the upper torso of a woman was found in a garbage bag at that construction site in Hubbard Woods.
Candy stared down at the fetal pig in the dissecting pan—and at the rolled-up plastic bag beside it. She kept thinking of her Aunt Lisa.
“What are you talking about?” Trish asked in a hushed voice. She squinted at Candy. “Your aunt jumped off a bridge and drowned herself. It was in all the newspapers and on TV....”
Candy shot a cautious glance at Ms. Trotter, who was helping another student. She leaned in close to her friend. “They never found her body,” she whispered. “My uncle used to beat her up. Last summer when we were changing clothes at the pool, I saw the bruises on her—and these burn marks on her side. I didn’t know what it was—until I overheard my parents talking about how he abused her. My Uncle Glenn, I’m pretty sure he used his cigar on her....”
Grimacing, Trish put down the suture. “God, that’s awful,” she said under her breath. “So he burned her?”
Tears filled Candy’s eyes and she nodded. “I think he killed her. The torso they found yesterday, the newspaper said there were marks on it—three burn marks on her side.”
Trish heard R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” playing on the other side of the bedroom door. She knocked, and then pushed the door open.
Her twenty-two-year-old sister, Mary Ellen, who had graduated from college last year, was sitting on the beige shag-carpeted floor in her pajamas. She had the boom box beside her, and several CDs—some in their cases, some not. Her auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She frowned at her. “Trish, do you mind? I’m busy here! I’m making a mixtape for Greg....”
Trish hesitated in the doorway. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure her parents weren’t within earshot. “Listen,” she said, biting her lip. “If I told you a secret—I mean, a really, really serious secret—would you promise not to tell anybody?”
Trish’s sister reached over and switched off the boom box, silencing R.E.M. in mid-song. She stared at her. “What are you talking about?”